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Lettuce for the Dead in a Tidy, 4,000-Year-Old Egyptian Funeral Garden

The find is the first of its kind.

An orderly Egyptian funeral garden, the first ever found.
An orderly Egyptian funeral garden, the first ever found. CSIC

Ancient Egyptians who could afford a lavishly decorated tomb probably had some strong ideas about what they wanted their funerals to be like. Among depictions of gods and scenes honoring the life of the deceased are often depictions of their desired burial rituals, an important resource for archaeologists about religious beliefs and practices. One thing that shows up in these scenes are funeral gardens—tidy planting beds just outside a tomb entrance—but until now there was no hard evidence that they actually existed.

Tomb artwork depicting a funeral garden.
Tomb artwork depicting a funeral garden. CSIC

Scientists from the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) recently found the first known funeral garden, just outside a rock-cut tomb on Dra Abu el-Naga hill in Luxor, Egypt. It’s about six feet by nine feet, divided into orderly, square plots, a couple of which are raised above the level of the rest. Jose Manuel Galán, director of the project for CSIC, theorizes that each small plot would have hosted a different plant species associated with the afterlife: palm, sycamore, Persea trees (the group that include avocados), even lettuce. In one corner of the garden, the excavators found the remains of a salt cedar shrub and a bowl containing dates and other pieces of fruit, preserved for 4,000 years by the dry climate.

How researchers think the garden might have been planted.
How researchers think the garden might have been planted. CSIC

“Now we must wait to see what plants we can identify by analyzing the seeds we have collected,” Galán said in a release. “It is a spectacular and quite unique find which opens up multiple avenues of research.”

The site comes from a critical time in Egyptian history, 500 years or so after the pyramids were built, when Upper and Lower Egypt were reunited and the prosperity of the Middle Kingdom began.